On the Future of Wagnerism, Part 2: Jewish Wagnerites and Wagner Societies

On the Future of Wagnerism, Part 2: Jewish Wagnerites and Wagner Societies
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Part 1 of "On The Future of Wagnerism," "Do New Revelations of Hitler's Taste in Art Cast New Light on Wagner Appreciation?" was published on Huffington Post, 2/18/14.

Part 1 of "On The Future of Wagnerism" explored the implications for Wagner appreciation of emerging revelations about Hitler's taste in art. It also considered the related question of whether Wagner is "stuck in a Nazi rut," as New Yorker music critic Alex Ross put it. Ross doubtless speaks for many Wagnerites who have grown impatient with what they feel to be the exhausted and myopic discussion of Wagner's links to Hitler and Nazism at the expense of Wagner appreciation, especially as we mark the bicentennial of the composer's birth. What will be Wagner's place in the next century? Part 1 sees two trends. The first is an inevitable receding of the Hitler-Wagner connection, as time and history move on. Just as we no longer concern ourselves with the wars and politics and biases that cradled the Greek tragedies, presumably we will care less and less about those that nurtured Wagner. The bathwater of Hitler and Nazism will eventually get thrown out, the baby of Wagner's art saved. The countervailing trend suggests that the ongoing fallout from Wagner's epochal anti-Semitism, Hitler's adoration of Wagner and Bayreuth's enthusiastic collaborations with Hitler and Nazism will continue to lead to a less exalted, more qualified place for the composer in the annals of art.

"Fifty years after the demise of the Third Reich, it is incomprehensible that intelligent people still deny the obvious truth that if the New Testament of the Nazi political and religious cult was Mein Kampf, the Old Testament was the work of Richard Wagner." That's how Gottfried Wagner (the composer's great grandson), playwright William M. Hoffman and composer John Corigliano (co-creators of The Ghosts of Versailles), composer Michael Shapiro and I put it in a published letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1998, in response to a New York Times piece, "The Specter of Hitler in the Music of Wagner," by music critic and historian Joseph Horowitz. Reviewing Germanic studies professor Marc Weiner's Wagner and The Anti-Semitic Imagination, which shows how Wagner's texts and music are riddled with anti-Semitic allusions, Horowitz wrote in what's now a long-established tradition of Wagnerites -- many of them, like Horowitz, impressively learned and accomplished, and a striking number of them Jewish -- whose willingness and often enough eagerness to rationalize, minimize, obfuscate and deny the presence and toxicity of Wagner's anti-Semitism can strain credulity.

Wagner and Me is a recent documentary created by and featuring the wonderful actor and brave gay activist Stephen Fry, a Jewish Wagnerite who claims his Jewish identity while making an admirable but not very in-depth effort to face some of the history and truth about Bayreuth, Wagner and Wagner's operas, as he tours the Wagner Festival's grounds. Like Horowitz, Fry acknowledges Wagner's anti-Semitism and Bayreuth's Nazi history. In his tone and body language in the film, Fry elicits the kind of surpassing forgiveness and trust, a feeling of comfort, of being at home, that the Jews of Wagner's circle who so revered the composer must have felt, notwithstanding the abundance of evidence to the contrary around and about them. It's the same feeling of comfort and trust you sense in the Wagnerism of Joseph Horowitz.

Surely so supreme an artist as Wagner simply must be surpassingly worthy of trust. Therefore, so this logic goes, trust not what Wagner ranted in treatises and journals and letters, or undeniably depicted in his music and texts, but what's otherwise intuitable, however inchoately, in the interstices of his art, especially in what Horowitz and others see as the complexity, empathy and ambiguity of his characterizations of villains and heroes alike. In this view, Wotan, Siegried, Alberich and Mime, like Amfortas, Parsifal, Klingsor and Kundry, exist in a kind of musico-dramatic ether of human, moral and characterological equipoise. However villainous Alberich, Mime and Kundry may really be, they are more recognizably human and capable of arousing levels of compassion denied the too often insufferably virtuous Siegfried and Parsifal. That this is precisely Wagner's point about the Jews -- that they can appeal in ways that mask their reality, and that those who perceive and act on that awareness can seem comparatively smug and self-righteous -- seems ever to elude Wagnerites.

I, too, always knew about Wagner's anti-Semitism and Bayreuth's Nazi history. Notwithstanding that knowledge, I embraced that same deep feeling of trust, that comfort of heimat within the universe of Wagner's art, which held me bewitched for much of my younger opera-going life. We Wagnerites all, non-Jewish and Jewish alike, became Kundrys under the spell of "the sorcerer of Bayreuth." Wagner, "the master of Bayreuth," was the master of our senses at the price of our souls. We had no idea how far we had wandered into the realms of and how complicit we had become with racist, nationalist and anti-Semitic agendas.

Fast forward to a generation later, when Ned Rorem, never a Wagnerite, tried to bring me to my senses, to get me to see what we Wagnerites never could, no matter what kind of lip service we gave to critical and qualifying views of Wagner, no matter how hard we tried: that greatness of the art does not mean greatness -- nobility, humanity, character -- of the artist. That greatness of art equals greatness of heart is an equation that turns out to be no more true for composers than for train conductors.

Most notable of recent contributions to this discourse is a documentary film, Wagner's Jews, created by Hilan Warshaw, a filmmaker, writer and musician, which documents the remarkable extent and complexity of the social and psychological sadomasochism of Wagner's relationships with a number of Jews. In the process, it documents with singular clarity and accessibility the depth, seriousness and progression of Wagner's anti-Semitism. Warshaw's film features commentary from a number of prominent Jewish musicians and writers, including Leon Botstein, Paul Lawrence Rose and Robert Gutman. So effective is Warshaw's exposure of the psychosocial masochism of Jews in their relations with Wagner that it's impossible not to consider parallels with the most infamous of such behaviors -- the Jewish kapos and Judenrate in their relationships with the Nazis. With great respect for the impossible circumstances and choices forced upon these Jews by the Nazis, and notwithstanding Alex Ross's wishful certainty that the Nazis paid no attention to and couldn't have cared less about Wagner, when the Nazis were looking for tutorials of how to exploit the psychology of the vulnerability and self-effacement of Jews -- what we more commonly refer to as the internalization of anti-Semitism -- they would have found no greater or more sophisticated an exemplar than Richard Wagner.

Not interviewed in Warshaw's film is Daniel Barenboim, a Jewish Wagnerite who fits right into this discussion. (Scheduling conflicts prevented Barenboim's participation in the film.) Barenboim, whose humanitarian efforts to work with Palestinian musicians are widely lauded, is the author of a recent essay, "Wagner and the Jews," in the New York Review of Books, which shows that the distinguished Israeli conductor and pianist still clings to the Wagnerite and especially Jewish Wagnerite delusion that Wagner's admittedly extreme anti-Semitism does not infect his music or operas, their meaning or appreciation. The art, Barenboim keeps trying to believe and insist, is independent of the man. In their public conversation together at Columbia, no matter how hard the eminent Palestinian intellectual and literary theorist Edward Said tried to get his friend Barenboim to acknowledge the obvious taint of anti-Semitism in Wagner's works, the conductor would not budge.

To my knowledge, no conductor of international renown has refused to conduct Wagner. Some, however, have refused to conduct at Bayreuth, most famously Toscanini during WWII and Leonard Bernstein in the postwar period. Bernstein had been in correspondence with Wolfgang Wagner (Wagner's grandson, Gottfried's father and, together with his brother Wieland, a Nazi collaborator) about leading a new production of Tristan und Isolde there. Tristan, Bernstein felt, was free of the anti-Semitism that infected most of the other works. Ostensibly, these negotiations fell through because of scheduling conflicts, but I was acquainted with Bernstein during that period and, as I recall and as likewise alluded to by Gottfried Wagner in his memoir, Twilight of the Wagners, the main problem was the inadequately addressed Nazi past of Wolfgang Wagner and Bayreuth. Although Bernstein, wildly popular in Germany and Austria, often conducted orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic and in venues where questions of Nazi collaboration remained similarly inadequately addressed, Bayreuth seemed to represent a higher level of challenge in confronting this history.

Like Barenboim, James Levine is another leading Jewish conductor who accepted Bayreuth's invitations to conduct there. Unlike Barenboim, however, Levine, who rarely gives interviews, shies away from discussion of social and political issues, concerns, causes. In the heyday of AIDS and gay liberation, Levine worked with prominent artists known to be gay such as John Corigliano and William M. Hoffman, and he co-conducted a gala benefit concert for Gay Men's Health Crisis. But his public silence about gay liberation, gays in music, and gays in Russia is the doppelganger of his public silence about anti-Semitism, Jews in music, Wagner, Bayreuth and Wagnerism. After many decades in the spotlight, it's clear that Levine is not an avid or gifted public speaker, and he now struggles with considerable health challenges. Even so, it's disappointing and also sad that so outstanding and important an American musician and cultural figure, whose grandfather was a synagogue cantor, has never found a way to express himself publicly regarding these controversies, especially as they might relate to his own experience, identities and feelings.

Perhaps all Jewish Wagnerites appreciate that at some level they must accede to Wagner since his reign over the worlds of music, art and culture, however clamorous, has never been toppled, not even in the wake of Hitler and Nazism. On the contrary, proving the PR maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity, Wagnerism seems if anything to feed on these controversies. Rationalizing, mitigating, denying and compromising with Wagner's ever-present anti-Semitism -- whether vehemently explicit or vehemently implicit (As Alex Ross seems eager to point out, Wagner doesn't explicitly defame the Jews as Jews in his operas) -- allows Jews to continue to participate freely and fully in all levels of art and what is still widely regarded, certainly by Wagnerites, as the highest experience of art, Wagner appreciation.

The alternative would be a huge mess. Imagine leading conductors, singers and directors refusing to perform Wagner or audience cohorts refusing to attend Wagner performances. Imagine a larger scale of what happened in Israel with the banning of Wagner, or of the more recent debacle in Los Angeles, where some patrons tried unsuccessfully to prevent a mounting of the Ring cycle by the Los Angeles Opera. Such is Wagner's hold that if and when a choice is forced between Wagner and Jewish sensitivities, Wagner invariably will be chosen, a reality that is emergent even in Israel. More unconsciously and instinctively than clearly and honestly, probably the majority of Jews in music and art and culture appreciate this reality and continue to do all they can to prevent such confrontations, to defend themselves psychologically as well as socially and professionally. Hence Jewish Wagnerites as we mostly see them today. They're like black or gay Republicans, gay Catholics, gay or female Islamists, or Jewish Marxists, incongruously supporting individuals and institutions that are significantly inimical to them, with a logic and intellectualism that can be breathtakingly circuitous and an enthusiasm that can appear outsized and troubled.

Jews need Wagner in order to be fully integrated into the music and arts communities, much as Mahler needed to convert to Catholicism for the same reasons, and much as Wagner needed Jews to build his career at multiple levels. But parity this is not. It's crucial to distinguish here between Wagner, who genocidally hated Jews, and Jewish Wagnerites, who unwaveringly adored and worshiped Wagner the vanguard artist. An additional perspective about this emerges from the work of Hilan Warshaw, who captures in his paper, "No One Can Serve Our Cause Better Than You: Wagner's Jewish Collaborators After 1869," Wagner's sense of Jews as crucial to the vision and execution of his artistic vision. Avid Jewish participation in the building and execution of that vision is seen as a proof of its rightness and provides a level of satisfaction that is mostly tacit and paraconscious. Inevitably, it's the same satisfaction that the Nazis took in the "enthusiastic" participation of Jewish elders and councils in the processesing of Jews for plunder, slavery and extermination. In this perspective, what Jewish Wagnerites like Joseph Horowitz glean to be the composer's ostensibly transcendant musical-dramatic insight into himself and others, the villains as well as the heros, the real Wagner that emerges is not Shakespeare, whose anti-Semitic creation Shylock was pointed enough to be exploited by the Nazis, but the Nazi propoganda creations Ewige Jude and Jud Suss.

What Shakespeare achieved with the otherwise dramatic and powerful character of Shylock and the tragicomic ambiguity of The Merchant of Venice is what Wagnerites like Horowitz want to believe Wagner achieved with Alberich, Mime, Beckmesser, Klingsor and Kundry in the Ring cycle, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal. But so far as we know, Shakespeare was no more personally or dramatically invested in anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice than he was in racism in Othello. Nothing remotely comparable can be claimed for Wagner, who was in an entirely different universe of racist, nationalist and anti-Semitic agendas.

When I was writing my memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite, I met one-on-one with Horowitz, who tried to make the case for Wagner's anti-Semitism being of its time and place and therefore to some extent understandable and forgiveable. In addition, there was the implication that some of Wagner's stereotyping may have had more of a basis than Wagner's critics have allowed, which doubtless explains what Gustav Mahler, perhaps the most famous Jewish Wagnerite, was trying to say in comparing himself to Mime. In other words, as a number of Jewish Wagnerites who should know better have seen it, Wagner's anti-Semitism should be regarded as to a degree accurate and justified. As we now know, such thinking was all too typical among the German Jews who were transported to the camps in the same train cars as their social inferiors, still secretly priding themselves on not being "one of those people."

There is another analogy to the Wagner and the Jews situation, one closer to home here in America and parallel in time to the life of Wagner and the inception of Wagnerism -- the slavemasters and slaves of the pre Civil War American South. In the New York Times, music critic Zachary Woolfe pondered the connections between the film "Django" with Wagner and the Ring cycle, allusions to which color Quentin Tarantino's highly acclaimed film. There, Woolfe finds as many implications as there are twists and turns in the director's use and mischievously irreverent misuse of Wagner: "What we are required to do is to remain aware, as Mr. Tarantino's film perhaps inadvertently reminds us, that Wagner's operas do not exist outside history or politics."

"Robert Lepage's production of the Ring cycle is proudly apolitical," Woolfe observes, "but when it returns to the Metropolitan Opera...audiences will ideally have 'Django' in the back of their minds..." And likewise ideally, they will further consider that whatever Gone With The Wind moments of seemingly benign, mutually supportive relationships between Wagner and his Jewish disciples may have existed at Wahnfried, the Wagner equivalent of Tara (e.g., between Wagner and Hermann Levi, who conducted the world premiere of Parsifal and was a pall-bearer at Wagner's funeral in Venice), it's not Cap'n Butler and Mammy so much as the slavemasters of "Django" and "12 Years a Slave" that most successfully convey the psychological and philosophical atmosphere of The Master of Bayreuth's relationships to his Jews.

Meanwhile, is it unreasonable to probe deeper than we have beneath the rock we call Wagnerism? Is there a Bachism, Beethovenism or Mozartism? Is it like "gay sensibility," a phenomenon we know exists but which eludes precision and certainty of definition? Is it a philosophy, movement, religion? Or is it a cult? Apart from the issue of the relationship between Wagner societies, Bayreuth and the Wagner family (lest we forget, Wagner continues to be a family business), and apart from their history, which goes back to the first Bayreuth festivals, Wagnerism is a sociocultural phemonenon that begs for greater critical scrutiny.

In his book, Wagner Nights, about the history of Wagnerism in America at the turn of the century, Joseph Horowitz gives a sense of the scale of this phenomenon that was unique in legitimizing, however indirectly or tacitly under the mantle of high art, the contemplation and appreciation of indubitably racist and anti-Semitic perspectives in a country where racism and anti-Semitism, though not so extreme as they became in Europe, were nonetheless endemic and pervasive. At that time in America, there were quotas for Jews at the leading universities, including Harvard and Yale, and Jews were widely excluded from clubs, apartment buildings, neighborhoods and jobs; and segregation was the law of the land.

But that's not what Horowitz finds. Rather, he mostly writes about what a meliorist social movement Wagnerism was, how it was for a time dominated by women, giving them a place and voice they did not otherwise have. Not surprisingly in Horowitz's account, anti-Semitism does not seem a notable aspect of Wagnerism, at least not consciously or explicitly in those years in America, in contrast to what happened to Wagnerism over the ensuing decades in Europe. Alas, there is no major, comprehensive study of Wagnerism to help place Horowitz's work in greater perspective.

On the surface, today's Wagner societies seem fully open to discussion of controversy. Critical inquiry is welcome, including discussion of Wagner's anti-Semitism. Jews are invited to participate, to play the same prominent roles in promoting Wagner's legacy that we played in Wagner's own life and career, especially when that participation, however critical on this point or that, is discernibly enthusiastic, as it so unwaveringly is. All the world's Wagner societies include Jews, who are sometimes presidents of these organizations. There is even an Israeli Wagner society. But let that participation strike the wrong chord and a different kind of reception may result. When it was published, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite, with its introduction by Gottfried Wagner, was banned from the literature table of the Wagner Society of New York by its President Forever, Nathalie D. Wagner, apparently by fiat. (Has the Wagner Society of New York ever held an election?) The reaction of Wagner societies to Gottfried Wagner has been comparably frosty. Why are these books so threatening?

Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite is a personal memoir of my recognition of the psychological and moral troubledness of my own Wagnerism, bound up, as I discovered it to be, with my own internalized anti-Semitism, within greater concerns about the cult of Wagner and its influence on cutlure, society and politics. Gottfried Wagner's memoir, Twilight of The Wagners, shares those concerns as it takes an unflinchingly hard look at the already heavily but still far from adequately addressed Nazi history of Bayreuth and his family's, especially his never repentant father Wolfgang Wagner's, collaborations with Nazism. (Some of this family discord is also captured in the Tony Palmer film, The Wagner Family.)

Admittedly, these memoirs tell of movement away from the composer. And their threat may be that as such, they are just too undermining of Wagner and inimical to Wagnerism, which is inevitably about Wagner appreciation.

Meanwhile, one can't help but wonder to what extent Jewish as well as non-Jewish Wagnerites are experiencing the same satisfaction, albeit a lot more tacitly and preconsciously, that Richard and Cosima Wagner clearly savored in witnessing such enthusiastic Jewish participation in the promotion of Wagnerism. Like Alberich, Mime and the Nibelungs, as Wagner saw us, we never miss an opportunity to exploit and betray one another. In any event, I wouldn't anticipate finding much discussion of such things at Wagner Society gatherings, even those that are currently hosting screenings of Wagner's Jews.


Lawrence D. Mass is the author of Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite: Being Gay and Jewish in America.

Biographical note: Lawrence D. Mass, M.D., is a cofounder of Gay Men's Health Crisis and was the first to write about AIDS in any press. He is the author of We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer. He specializes in addiction medicine and lives in New York City.

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